DANCING WITH THE SPIDERS

A scientist’s love story with the eccentric and largely unknown peacock spider

Watch out next time you see a tiny spider jumping on the ground. Don’t step on it. It might be a species that no one has ever seen.

That’s how Australian scientist Dr. Jurgen Otto first encountered peacock spiders, a species discovered in 1874 but virtually unknown until Otto’s camera brought them to light.

It took Otto three years to track the spiders down after their first “date”, but it was definitely worth the wait. The world of peacock spiders is a wonderland. They’re tiny creatures—smaller than a wedding ring—but they have beautiful jewel-colored tails, and lives full of fancy dance moves, swaggers and romance.

It’s also a world where the females rule. The male spiders have to dance to get their woman and they constantly face the danger of being eaten by their lovers.

“The females are extremely tough and strong. They look after the young, probably for three months, and they hardly eat anything. If you offer her a male, of course she will jump at it and eat it,” explains Otto. “What good is a male for them if they can’t mate with them? ”

Peacock spiders are only found in southern Australia and little academic study has been done on them. “To my knowledge, not a single person gets paid studying it. All the people involved are amateur or citizen scientists,” says Otto.

But thanks to years of hard work by Otto and his two friend David Knowles and David Hill, many new species of peacock spiders have been discovered, categorized and named. They publish their findings on an online journal Peckhamia. And they take the naming process seriously.

If you’re working on an organism that nobody knows about and cares about, you always struggle with funding. It’s very tempting just to name them after celebrities to get more attention. There was a fly called after Beyonce recently,”says Otto, “But I try to stay away from things like that. I’d like to get these animals famous for their own beauty, not to borrow somebody else’s fame. “

In fact, peacock spiders did get famous because of their own beauty. Dr. Otto runs a YouTube channel dedicated to peacock spiders and many of his videos get millions of view.

“The popularity adds to my enthusiasm,” says Otto.

He now finances his study of peacock spiders through the money he gets from licensing his footage. (And you don’t want to miss this video of peacock spiders dancing to YMCA, made by a fan using Otto’s footage.)

If you flip through Otto’s YouTube channel or Tumblr page, you’ll get the impression that they’re dancing in the wild. But most of the videos are actually shot in Otto’s home. “It’s a small room that I call my spider room.” He carefully gathers the spiders and takes them home to study and document them, before he returns them to their natural habitat. “It took me 14 hours to drive them in each direction.”

Otto plans to continue the work, even though it costs him a considerable amount of time and money. “I’d like to expand my YouTube collection because it’s not only entertaining but also, scientifically, it’s a great repository of materials. It’s almost like a little library that people can go to see what these spiders looks like. ”

Believe it or not, peacock spiders are not the only love of Otto’s life. He has a post-doctoral degree in mites, and he works for the Australian government as a mites researcher. “Mites are groups that deserve equal attention. If you magnify them, they’re marvelous creatures, I just love to have mites the same size as dogs and people will be absolutely amazed by what they see. They’re more diverse than anything else I know.”

But Otto does acknowledge that peacock spiders are more cheerful to watch. “Usually the mites I study are dead. But spiders are different. They’re alive and always jumping around.”

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